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Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Religion and Reason 

This is not a topic that can be comprehensively analyzed in a single blog post that anybody is likely to ever read. But I thought that since I'm trying to represent myself as somebody with a commitment to reason, I should at least address the subject.

So, here are a few semi-random thoughts:

First of all, I don't hate religion or think all religious people are stupid. I have good, smart, friends who are religious to some extent, and I think I have some understanding why. I have respect for these people, but on this issue I think they're mistaken.

I don't want to discuss the logical arguments for God here. They are all invalid and have been discussed well elsewhere. One book on the subject I remember enjoying years ago is George H. Smith's Atheism: The Case Against God . I think most serious people don't think that they can defend their religious beliefs logically, but they believe for other reasons, and it's these I want to comment on. I also don't want to get into the merits and problems with any particular organized religions; nothing good can come from that.

Several people have told me that the main reason that they believe in God is because they have personally experienced something so powerful and profound that it left them with no doubt about God's existence. Well, I understand the desire to take your experiences seriously, but it seems to me that we know that our brains are not perfect reality receptors. They are subject to various influences including fatigue, illness, stress, etc. If we experience something that seems implausible, we should subject it to criticism before accepting it. Today I came across this essay that addresses some materialistic explanations for some of these experiences. I'm not saying that these are the exact explanations, but it seems to me that it's more reasonable to attribute these phenomena to natural rather than supernatural events when possible.

There are other psychological reasons for religion's appeal. One is the pressure to conform to one's family and peers. Another is that some of life's questions are difficult and there's a common desire for easy answers that can come from an authority. These questions include issues of life's meaning, ethics, explanation of events, death, etc. Again, I understand the appeal of these pressures, but I think we should prefer the truth to convenient lies; even if the truth is that we just don't know the answer right now.

When my mother died, I thought about these issues (briefly, I admit). I decided that it would be a dishonor to her (and me) to appeal to mysticism to help myself deal with her death. She was a human being. Human beings are special among the creatures we know of because they can independently understand aspects of the world, choose their values and create new knowledge. To reduce them to the status of pets who get their direction and purpose from a higher-level creature is to strip them of much of their nobility. So, I decided that this appeal to mysticism would create new problems for me and solve none.

Ok, I'll talk about one logical argument, only because it's so annoying: Pascal's Wager (basically that we should believe in God because the benefits of being right and costs of being wrong are infinite if He exists, and negligible if He doesn't). I have never understood why this argument seemed persuasive to people. To me it seems both unhelpful and incoherent.

It's unhelpful because, even if we accepted its premises, it doesn't tell us anything about God or what he wants us to do. Pascal may have assumed that the choice was between Roman Catholicism and atheism, but there are many other theological possibilities. How are we to know what God wants us to do? Can I eat pork, or not?

On the other hand it's incoherent because it doesn't make sense to believe in the fact of God because of the costs and benefits if he happens to exist. Even if I were persuaded that it made sense, it wouldn't help me actually believe that he exists. It would only motivate me to pretend to believe. And I suspect that an omniscient God would be able to tell.

On the third hand, it's not true that the benefits and costs are negligible if He doesn't exist. If we don't believe, then we'll spend our lives trying to make the most of them, because this life is all we expect to get. If we believe in God and an afterlife, we'll spend our time trying to conform to rules that promise to help us do better in the afterlife; and may have wasted much of the precious life that we had. This seems to be a huge cost to me.

Finally, if there is a God, and he set things up so that unless I reject the epistemological tools that serve me best in every other aspect of my life, He'll punish me with eternal damnation; then I refuse to respect him anyway. I'll go with the wrench.

UPDATE: Those who find the Pascal's Wager argument persuasive should probably send money to Alex Tabarrok, too.